I consider myself an independent person. Never much for big groups. That’s why I was reluctant to take a vacation with 35 strangers on a bus. It didn’t sound too glamorous to me. But my wife usually has good ideas (besides marrying me?) so I decided to roll the dice and get outside my comfort zone.
While in Rome…and Florence and Venice!
We took a classic “red eye” flight—left Tampa on a Friday evening and flew overnight to Zurich, Switzerland and then a relatively quick flight into Rome.
Our tour director met us at the airport and we boarded a bus back to our hotel in Rome where I couldn’t wait to take a little nap and a hot shower. But it was not to be: The tour group was going to meet in a conference room, go over the itinerary, and then take a bus to dinner. I was already feeling claustrophobic at my lack of autonomy.
The bus ride with my new travel-mates was subdued. Nobody new eachother and small talk was a little forced. Within minutes we were now sitting down for dinner with these same people and starting from scratch, “Where are you from?”
The group was from all over the world. We wound up connecting with a couple from Australia, as well as another couple from North Carolina. It was an interesting mix of people.
The restaurant was near the Colosseum and included Italian singers straight from central casting. The wine began to flow into our bottomless glasses, the courses began to show up one after another and friendships were formed over laughter, singing and red wine.
First stop Trevi fountain, followed by Piazza Navona and the quirky Pantheon. How interesting they’d build that church with a big circular hole in the dome of the roof. Rain falls in on a regular basis and seeps through the drain directly underneath that is cordoned off with red-velvet ropes. When we were there, the weather was perfect and the sun beamed off the interior of the dome which our tour director pointed out served as a sun dial or sorts.
From there it was on to the Vatican where we waited to witness Pope Francis offer a weekly blessing at Noon from his office window. Thousands waited through a brief rain shower, but the clouds parted and the sun came out in time for His Holiness. He clearly has connections. Vatican City is technically it’s own city, even though it’s enveloped on all sides by Rome.
Being on the tour allowed us to cut to the front of the line into the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. The hallway to the chapel was lined in beautiful artwork on the walls and on the ceiling. Our group walked in a nearly stunned silence. No cameras were allowed in the Sistine Chapel, giving it an extra aura of gravity. Guards shushed the crowd every few minutes.
We walked from the chapel into the largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica. I saw where Pope John Paul II was entombed and saw the mummified remains of Pope John XXIII. Stunning sight, as was the entire basilica. Wen went outside to see the Swiss Guards in their colorful uniforms. We actually caught the hourly changing of the guards which is identical to the regular ceremony in Arlington, Virginia, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I figured Rome was the highlight of the week, so I was sad to pack our bags and move north toward Florence, but I soon found out it was a wonderful variety. From major metropolitan city, complete with omnipresent graffiti, to a beautiful small city reminiscent of Sarasota’s beauty.
We stopped in Pisa to cross the Leaning Tower off the Bucket List. I was floored to see it in person, but equally shocked to see the flea market just outside the beauty shot. Pisa is not place to write home about: A generic little city with vendors swarming tourists as they get off the buses. It reminded me of the poverty around Tijuana, Mexico that I witnessed 20 years prior.
Back on the bus, we visited a vineyard and had dinner in its restaurant. Course after course of great food, and bottle after bottle of great wine. By now, this awkward group of strangers had morphed into a group of friends, although clearly cliques were forming and people began gravitating toward the same sub-groups. We wound up with a few couples that I would enjoy seeing on a regular basis—but I knew once this trip was over the chances of that were slim, especially the couple from Down Under.
The next morning we went into “downtown” Florence and witnessed the huge Duomo—or Florence– Cathedral. A long line of people waited to tour the beautiful building. Construction began in the 1200s and finished in the 1400s! And that was before unions. The adjacent Baptistery and its bronze doors full of sculpted artwork was an incredible sight to see.
We boarded a tour boat in Venice and cruised into the Grand Canal. At first we were excited to spot gondolas, but within a short time they were just part of the scenery. We eventually got a ride in a gondola and relaxed into the scenery.
After a week, two nights in each city, I was ready to get back home. Call me crazy, but I think a week is a good length for a vacation. Not that we have anything to rush home to, but there’s something to be said for sleeping in your own bed and having your routine back.
So, count me in as a new fan of guided bus tours. We’re already planning another one next fall to Spain. And we’re even trying to coordinate with some of our new friends we met on the tour of Italy!